7 Thoughts Worth Spreading from Product Management Festival 2020
From pursuing purpose-driven profits to applying product principles to leadership development.
👋 Hey, it’s András here! Every two weeks, I write about product management concepts, hot takes, and frameworks to help you build better products. Subscribe to get each article delivered to you when it’s published!
This year, I had the opportunity to participate in the Product Management Festival’s Europe event, which was held online due to the current circumstances. While initially, I had moderate expectations towards the digital-only conference, I was positively surprised at the interactivity and the diversity of the content.
At the event, speakers from well-known companies as well as smaller startups presented a variety of topics. From these sessions, I would like to share seven thoughts that brought in new perspectives or introduced a tweak to a known product concept.
How does a profit-oriented approach match together with value creation?
Radhika Dutt wants to make the world a better place through how product leaders approach their business models. The author argued that today’s innovations and iteration-led approach are too often leading to digital pollution, something which just creates noise in the online space. Her book, Radical Product Thinking, is scheduled for launch in September 2021.
She listed three “product diseases” that product teams might fall victim to:
Pivotitis: rapid, frequent changes in product direction, creating confused customers and product teams.
Obsessive Sales Disorder: trading off the long game for quick gains, which results in a fragmented product and distracted engineers.
Narcissus Complex: looking inwards and focusing on our own needs, becoming disconnected from real customer needs.
Radhika highlighted that these diseases are usually happening when there is a lack of product vision and strategy. She asserted that a new approach is required, which differentiates positive change from just any change. The author named this approach the radical product thinking. In her own words, it’s the methodology for building successful products that “brings the change you want to see in the world”.
The speaker extended the approach into her own radical product framework, a toolkit that includes roadmaps and business strategy worksheets. At the end of the presentation, she reinforced that we can systematically engineer a positive change in any organization with the help of a purpose-driven approach.
An important point
Product people can get obsessed with the amount of speed and scale they deliver at times while forgetting about the societal impact. As an example, increasing the number of recurring users is a terrible metric for a hospital.
Try, fail, then repeat the process until you succeed
The concept of 6-week delivery cycles in product management is not new. Basecamp’s Ryan Singer talked about it first in their Shape Up book, and many companies have implemented it since then, like Intercom or Buffer.
Why 6 weeks, one might ask. After some rounds of experimentation, they found it to be in the sweet spot of estimation confidence and effort, a healthy pace to deliver software projects.
During the conference, Daniil Pavliuchkov, product manager at e-scooter sharing company Tier, explained the story of how their teams changed to this new way of working. Their cycle looked a bit different from the one defined in the book and consisted of:
one 5-week long delivery period,
a 1-week launch time (to release new developments),
and a 2-week long cooldown part.
Daniil's learning is that their teams struggled to get this mentality working for the first three cycles and only got the rhythm right for the fourth time.
The initial issues were coming from scoping and the teams delivering for 8 consecutive weeks. Once they successfully narrowed their focus, then the pandemic unfolded and disrupted their everyday life.
Then, they needed to adjust their plans and introduce some cost-cutting measures. At the end of the 3rd cycle, most of their teams finished on time by shortening the cooldown period.
Then, things started to kick in. From there, teams were able to pick up the pace and meet their targets by scoping the work properly.
The learning here?
Tier has decided to try out an experiment with their way of working. They stuck with their plan even after multiple failed attempts, iterating on what went wrong, and committed to make the new approach work.
What can product managers get from drawing?
A picture is worth a 1000 words, as the old saying goes. Julia Steier surely has some experience in that, as she is a kid book author, a sketch-note artist, and a product manager. During her session, she emphasized why product managers should draw more and what benefit it might mean to them if they do so.
She started by highlighting how drawing can help us remember more, even during online meetings. For her everyday work, drawing helps Julia visualize concepts and flows: the press of a button on the user interface could be a complex logic flow in the codebase. Sketching helps here.
Julia compares drawing to language learning for kids. Kids start to learn sounds, which evolve into words, which then turn into sentences. In Julia’s own learning system, drawing is the composition of four steps:
Basic shapes: all the underlying elements needed for drawing; circles, lines, rectangles, triangles, and blobs.
Pictionary: how shapes come together into simple objects, like a house.
Grammar: four rules for drawing to make sure the final artwork is continuous and understandable (below).
Practicing: doing it as often as possible — in a conference call, during a presentation, or even when assembling the shopping list.
As an ending note, the author highlighted that drawing helps, even when it’s not the best-looking. She mentioned one of her recent experiences with Zoom and how she had to draw a pixelated flow illustration with her computer mouse.
The speaker’s highlight
First, it doesn’t matter if one can only draw a stick figure if it helps explain a certain point better. Second, to express ourselves better, we should all draw more in our everyday life.
Driving retention through value nurturing
A good subscription product succeeds through subscriber retention — Andrey Mikhaylyuk, monetization product lead at Flo, started his presentation with the sentence. Then, he quickly jumped to explain why there is a reasonable difference between making the user pay and creating value.
In his explanation, making users pay is just the first step to gaining their trust. Users paid for a service because they believed it would bring value for them, but this is not yet justified at the moment when they enter their credit card details. Andrey highlighted that beyond sales, value nurturing requires conscious effort from teams to make an impactful outcome.
The speaker listed a couple of strategies that Flo utilizes to keep their users and drive an increase in subscriber retention:
From the very first touchpoint, they try to communicate a consistent message to customers. If somebody downloaded the app because of a sleeping problem ad, they would highlight the same message after the installation.
They remind users how their usage and input help the application to make better predictions. Beyond that, they utilize careful nudges and success messaging like ”You’ve achieved your daily goal!”.
Flo also offers user recommendations proactively. If they think a piece of content would suit a user’s need, they display small in-app messages to drive engagement.
And last but not least, Flo displays full-screen promotions to advertise new features after releases. This way, users are reminded that the product brings added value, even after they’ve subscribed.
Andrey closed his session with an important comparison: the first month of an annual subscription is very different from the last month.
One thought to take away
If a user subscribes to an app, that doesn't mean they see its value immediately. Thoughtful messaging is important not only before someone pays but also through the rest of the customer lifecycle.
The hidden potential in platform capabilities
Being a product manager within a sizeable platform product is a unique challenge. Vidhu Sharma, Atlassian’s cloud search product manager, explained in his presentation how platform capabilities could be the invisible features that delight customers.
Vidhu began his speech by highlighting two familiar features to most digital users. He mentioned Google’s search cards and how they sum up just the right information we need at times, and Spotify’s music recommendation service. He then took a fitting quote from Arthur C. Clarke:
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
According to Vidhu’s view, three defining platform capabilities can push the envelope to a feature:
Integration: as a strategy, the platform must be adoptable and have a low barrier to integration. A quick value of integrating with a platform is not having to re-create features that were already developed by other teams.
Affinity: as a growth strategy, the platform can be a distribution channel. While extending a platform’s capabilities, adjacent customers might get interested in the current offering beyond the new features.
Flow: to broaden the product-market fit, leveraging the low-hanging fruits by adding extra capabilities into an existing flow.
One thing to keep in mind
A killer feature doesn’t create a compelling overall product. While some teams might be more capable of creating advanced feature sets, it usually doesn’t worth the effort if it’s not making the whole platform better.
Improving the way how we A/B test things
A/B testing is a frequent topic in product management, and Sultan Seitbekov’s presentation from Miro highlighted just how important statistical significance is. The speaker started his presentation with his take on the PM role. He thinks that it’s not the mini-CEO role some literature refers to but rather a key position to bring data to the table.
Sultan went on to highlight that failure is okay, and experimentation is always a key to the agreement. He mentioned that a good A/B test is always conclusive, even if it’s not bringing the expected uplift we were hoping to get. He then flashed Optimizly’s sample calculator size to show just how easy it is to get statistical significance and how big of a sample size is needed.
Sultan brought up the concept of power, which is an effect of impact and traffic. And then, he projected the following quote on the slides:
“If it’s low power, it’s low impact or low traffic, so why should we care?”
The speaker gave a list of potential actions to raise the “power” of an experiment if it doesn’t have enough traffic to be statistically significant:
merge similar user segments together
validate higher in the funnel first, with more traffic
do the same experiments in multiple platforms
run the experiment longer (but do not do it too often)
try to find a proxy metric, if direct conversion is hard to measure
The product manager also called attention to a few cases where effective experimentation is not possible. These are experiences that are either not backward compatible or brand-new features/products. Here, he mentioned Miro’s dogfooding approach, which utilizes the company’s own employees in the first round to provide feedback on any breaking functionality.
The learning here?
In product management, people often talk about the importance of experimentation. However, it’s not that often that we really take a look at the methodological background of statistical risks.
Inclusive leadership as a product
Product management principles are usually used in connection with digital products. But according to Ekaterina Garbaruk Monnot, this doesn’t have to be the case. In her view, the same approach can also be used to develop leaders, specifically introducing the concept of inclusive leadership.
Ekaterina talked about five product management ideas and how they can be translated into a leadership development product:
Focus on customer needs: in the case of an internal leadership toolkit, the main customers are the company’s managers who would like to evolve their skills.
Vision & direction: a product manager’s focus can be leveraged to ensure that anything that is being developed is moving towards a shared vision.
Deliver value: being committed to delivering value is one way to make sure that the work is always focused on value-creation.
Operate in uncertainty: product managers are good in changing environments, and it’s especially true when someone is developing a leadership toolkit no one has done before within the company.
Complex environments: as a last point, product people are good at managing many stakeholders and expectations. This skill can be utilized to guide a leadership initiative towards its completion.
The speaker then guided the audience through the process of ideation, prototyping, and testing an inclusive leadership toolkit MVP. In the process, Ekaterina noted that asking people at the office coffee machine (pre-pandemic) proved to be a rapid way to gather feedback and identify early improvement opportunities. In the end, the team was able to re-test an improved version of the leadership toolkit, which turned to be popular among the early adopters.
The lesson from the session
Product management principles can be just as useful in other aspects of life as in managing a product. From buying a house to recruiting and nurturing people, a product mindset can bring value in tackling almost any challenge.
These seven talks from the Product Management Festival 2020 covered a wide range of topics and featured diverse speakers. While there were many other good sessions at the conference, it’s visible that…
product management is a form of art.
All product managers should adhere to a few common principles, but the authors demonstrated that anybody could add their own take to the mix.